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When Children Play With (Electronic) Fire….

Adults frequently allow their children to play with fire.  Not the real, combustible kind, but the world-ranging, never-dying fire that is the Internet.  They give children the latest gadgets, even when it is not the wisest thing to do. (Tell me…WHY does a 6-year old need a $600 smart phone with full access to the entire planet?)  Then they turn them loose without supervision, controls, or “training”.  Few boundaries are given.  If they are, it is often only when the technology is first provided with no “booster shots” as time goes by.
If you talk to military leaders they will tell you that technology is a “force multiplier”. It increases the power and lethality of weapons used against an enemy.
Unfortunately, technology also increases the power and deadliness of children’s actions and words.  The power and influence that technology puts into our children’s hands is totally disproportionate to their maturity and can be very harmful, even deadly. We all read about examples such as:
  • Children gang up on others with social media
  • Revenge is taken by sharing inappropriate pictures among peers, or online with the entire world
  • Reputations are destroyed
  • Kids do something “cool” and are arrested for felonies
  • Pranks and similar acts cause pain and suffering far beyond what is intended or expected

This last one came to national attention in March 2017 when 11-year old Tysen Benze of Marquette, Michigan, killed himself within 2 hours of his girlfriend faking her own suicide via social media.  It all happened so quickly!  Now the young lady, who is (hopefully) grief stricken over this senseless event, is also facing the prospect of criminal charges.  Some of her friends may also face charges.

It seems it was typical teen/pre-teen romantic drama.  “A friend of the two children, Avery Mitchell, said that the unnamed girl plotted the hoax to see if Benz ‘really loved her and he took it the wrong way.'”(Daily Mail)  “The wrong way….”  The consequences that COULD emerge were nothing they could imagine, which might be reasonable given their youth and immaturity.  After all, they are only children.

Getting children to understand the dangers is difficult.  Sometimes it is just as difficult to get parents to understand the sheer power they put in a child’s hand, and the dangers that power creates.  In my years of speaking on Internet safety I have found that it is difficult to really communicate the need for close, continuous parenting when dealing with gadgets and such.  So, I turn to metaphors:  Cars and Guns.  Today,we will use cars.

Let’s look at the Smith family.  Recently, they have:

  • Given their 10-year old keys to the family car.
  • Allowed the child to back the car out of the driveway and drive on their street.
  • Let the child play with other kids, in the car, while the child has the keys with him/her.

If you think Mr. & Mrs. Smith are foolish, you are right.  You do not give a 10-year old control over a multi-thousand pound vehicle that has the power to destroy and kill.  There are a number of reasons:

  • They are not mature enough to understand the responsibility.
  • They have no real training on safe operation (i.e. Driver’s Ed.).
  • They lack the maturity to see consequences of their actions.
  • It is not legal for the Smiths to let the children drive the car (at least, not off their own property)!

The Jones family, across the street, is not in much better shape:

  • They gave their 16-year old a brand new Corvette (it felt so good to be cool and give him what he wanted).
  • They mentioned obeying the laws that day.
  • They also told him not to speed, drink and drive, or text and drive.
  • And they waved good-bye as he headed out with friends.

The Jones did nothing wrong in giving their child a car, but to give a powerful car whose design, by itself, exposes the child to temptation to speed and drive recklessly is not always wise.  (C’mon, who wants to drive a ‘Vette slowly?).  They also are depending on their child, a teenager, to remember the parents’ safety warnings after only one discussion.  And this is the same child who keeps forgetting to take out the trash and pick up their socks.  While it is legal and appropriate for the Joneses to ensure their child learns to drive and have a vehicle that they can depend upon we have to remember that teenagers still lack maturity (even the “mature” ones).

I hope you can see the comparison. When we give children any technology without training, supervision, and without thoughtful consideration for the child’s maturity, we let them play with fire.  Likewise when we give them access to content and social media systems that includes temptations to do undesirable things!  We often do this because we want get the kids to stop bugging us, make things easier for us, not be the “bad” or “mean” parent, because ll the other parents are doing it, or we just want to feel good about ourselves because we are successful enough and cool enough to be able to give our children “THE BEST” and/or “WHAT THEY WANT”!

I would like to share some of Knights’ Quest general recommendations on technology and children:

Technology should be age-appropriate

For example, children under 10-11 should only have flip phones.  Children 10-15 can, if mature enough, have smart phones, and Knights’ Quest recommends the iPhone due to it’s superior built-in parental controls, including tracking. Children 16 and up should be allowed to choose their own phones with the parents guiding them through the consideration of features, content issues, etc..  Tablets should similarly be provided with increasing capability as the child progresses and we recommend the iPad for the same reasons.  This parallels the child’s progression from tricycle to bicycle to automobile as they grow.

Parents have absolute control of the technology:

Parents must have all account user names and passwords, and all unlock codes.  After all these are children.  Parental control of devices must be in place to protect children from themselves and from online threats.  The best time to implement these controls is right before the child even receives the device!

Behavioral boundaries must be put in place and safeguards implemented with meaningful consequences for misbehavior. Children should not have unfiltered access to the Internet at home or away.  Nor should they have free reign to add apps to devices or create user accounts for social media.  Instead, parents should work with, and guide, children when adding apps and accounts, taking the time to discuss the boundaries, safety considerations, and consequences of the new capability.

However, continuous around-the-clock monitoring, without cause, may keep the child from maturing in the ability to choose NOT to do wrong, etc..  Parents should control and monitor but with consideration of a child’s privacy and development.

Tech-Parenting must be a continuous, on-going activity

Discussions about Internet safety should be routine, just as discussions about drugs an alcohol should be.  Teachers know that time and repetition are required for learning.  Parents need to keep that in mind when discussing boundaries and behavior.  One tip:  Include in the discussions what it will take for a child to get to the “next level” of tech, such as moving from flip phone to smart phone.  Such cyber-parenting should cover:

Security: User name and password protection (including regular password changes)
Inappropriate content:  Hate speech, pornography, etc.
Wrongful use:  Taking pictures/videos without permission, embarrassing folks with technology, etc.
Openness of the Internet: Nothing is private, everything can be exposed to everyone
Mask of the Internet: Anyone can be anyone, nothing should be taken at face value
Internet permanency:  Once posted/sent, things can’t be undone, and they can never be reliably deleted
Consequences: Household, community, legal, impact on the future (scholarships, jobs, etc.)
Benefits:  Increased trust and responsibilities, access to “neater stuff”, etc.
Role Models:  As children grow and mature, use them to teach/lead younger siblings
Parental access:  Make sure children know that they can, and should, come to you with problem, issues, and questions.
Currency:  Parents have to keep up with the changing times….and threats.

Tysen Benz’ suicide is a senseless Tragedy.  The girlfriend (and her friends) are undoubtedly going to be impacted by this event for the rest of their lives. They may even be convicted of crimes.

Horrible tragedies like this emphasize that parents MUST take an active and ongoing role in parenting children in the area of technology.  We must remember that a child’s use of technology is similar to their driving a car and requires parents to constantly reinforce safety and behavioral boundaries.

In closing, let me state that one of the most important lessons that both parents and their children need to learn.  I call it the “Jurassic Park Rule“:

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you SHOULD!

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